Monday, May 26, 2008

Does Homework Help or Hurt?

When asked to describe our elementary and secondary educational experiences as a student most of us describe certain teachers and remember certain events. We can all tell humorous stories of the remember when so and so variety. We also remember our successes and failures. When pushed we can even remember the more unpleasant parts of formalized education such as grades and homework.

Remember homework? Those joyful minutes spent filling out worksheets, memorizing spelling words, and cramming for tests? Where did the concept of homework come from? What is the purpose of homework? The issue of homework is heating up in the public debate.

This is not the first time our culture has debated the pros and cons of homework. The assigning of homework has caused various reactions throughout our collective educational history. Homework has been banned by a number of various bodies in our history. In the 1880'a a retired civil war general led a crusade in Boston's public schools to eliminate homework due to its damaging effect upon family life. The brave general argued repeatedly that kids just needed the chance to be kids. California followed suit in 1901with the state legislature banning homework and limiting it significantly at the high school level. The argument once again was homework's negative toll on home life and a perceived injustice is saddling young people with hours of work to complete upon their return from school.

Never doubt that one floating piece of space junk can have a profound influence on your life. When the Soviets launched Sputnik we went into fear mode. This floating piece of tin garbage pushed education in the States into overdrive. With fears that America was being out performed by her mortal enemy the blame had to fall somewhere. As usual the public school system became the whipping boy for all real and perceived social failings. Schools needed to be more rigorous if we were to win the space race and keep the Russians in their proper place. This ushered in the remarkable return of homework to American schools.

Does homework help and increase student learning or is it just mindless busy work that drives the joy out of learning while providing fodder for explosive arguments at home? Why do teachers give homework? Most teachers when pushed will advocate for homework along the lines that it reinforces the lessons in the classroom and leads to greater retention of facts. One might ask why in the 21st century are we equating learning with retention. As Einstein noted decades ago, "Why memorize what you can reference." Teachers often cite homework as a way to create a buffer for students with low test scores. Specifically in the secondary level these homework points that can often account for between 10-70% of the total point value for any course. As administrators we realize this buffering pillow often becomes one that can suffocate students of high intellect and creativity but low responsibility. How many F's and D's are directly related to missing homework assignments? I would argue (without any real evidence) that the majority of D's and F's awarded in high school are directly tied to missing homework? Some buffer.

Are our students better off with homework? The research in inconclusive at best with some slight correlation with improved grades. In general homework's impact on elementary and middle school performance is non-existent with only slight benefits being found amongst high school students. Alife Kohn writes extensively about these returns in his work "The Homework Myth". Kohn connects the proposed benefits of time spent with homework to the now debunked behaviorism of the 1940's.

Homework at the secondary level is a mixed bag. Some assignments seem necessary if anything productive is going to happen in class. Take an American literature class for example. If students are going to have a meaningful and engaged discussion about the themes of "The Grapes of Wrath" having read the novel or prerequisite chapters before class would be most helpful. Writing a paper cannot be done entirely in class either. Some tasks seem to necessitate out of school time being devoted to them. On the other hands mind numbing worksheets and spending hours doing repetitive problems that won't be checked or met with any meaningful feedback seems pointless. At best students drudge through them and at their worst sit clustered in morning (or mourning) groups before exchanging and copying the work. Sounds like a stimulating learning environment doesn't it?

With teacher preparation programs only providing cursory looks at how to assign and what to do with homework it is often left to individual school's to set policies or provide parameters. Teaching in secondary schools often remains an isolated task with individual instructors pursuing varied practices. How do we push for best practice regarding homework? What is best practice regarding homework? Are there general guidelines schools should require teachers to work with when assigning homework? Should it be voluntary? Should it be open ended and creative? Should it always be graded? Are our schools assigning too much?

Below are a couple of interesting videos regarding homework. One if a student produced tribute to the joys of homework while the other is from the author of a Wall Street Journal piece on homework that is reigniting the discussion on homework.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Catholic Schools and homeschooling?

What relationship is appropriate for the local Catholic high school to have with the homeschooling community? Current events spur my interest in the topic. My school's past administrator allowed home schooled children to participate in athletics and co-curricular activities if they attended for one period (at least religion) and paid partial tuition. These students were then able to participate on athletic teams that did not have cut policies.

Throughout this school year a number of families have raised issue with the eligibility of these students. To complicate matters this policy runs afoul of our state high school athletic association which requires students to attend for at least twenty credit hours a week or for the local school to approve and verify that twenty hours of instruction are taking place at each home these students are coming from.

Our school leadership team debated the issue and decided to adjust the practice for coming years by stating clearly that athletics and co-curricular activities are viewed as extension of our school day and are reserved for fully enrolled students. The basic premise of the school's position is that it is an all or nothing deal. Families should not view the Catholic high school as a salad bar where if one wants they can choose athletics and reject all the other offerings. The school's leadership team also articulated a justice issue when it comes to determining athletic eligibility. Not all students are being treated in a fair manner or are held to the same standard. This of course has lead to a rather energetic reaction by the local homeschool community that views the change as a horrible loss.

I've met with a handful of families about the issue and fielded a large number of anticipated phone calls. The argument from the home schoolers can basically be articulated in the following way. These families contribute to their parishes, the parishes help sponsor the high school, therefore they should be able to participate as they please. I understand the merits of this argument but I don't think it holds much weight. I've had families say directly to me that they can do a better job at home but need us to provide the athletic opportunity. Talk about being used. I understand the parish argument but then again doesn't the Church by sponsoring a Catholic school say that this is the primary way we choose to offer Catholic education? Then again the subsidy only accounts for 10% of the operating expenses.

Where are other schools at with this issue? What am I missing? Choices have consequences. Homeschooling has some tremendous benefits in terms of contact time and freedom, but every choice has its drawback. Am I missing something? Is my school being "petty" and narrow minded?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Early Exams? To grant or not to grant?

One of the joys of May besides the full array of culminating events that dot our calendars is the incessant parade of families requesting early exams for various reasons. There are the families who seem to be illiterate when reading calendars. Or then again there is the family who just couldn't resist the off peak rental on some chalet in Aspen. Why the school is expected to cater to these needs I don't really understand. I don't think I ever will. My family didn't operate that way.

But how do we walk the line between customer service and enforcing the rules? Our leadership team was debating adding a policy that would allow students to make them up after exams with a monetary cost per exam. Our superintendent shot down the whole concept as catering to sloth so we dropped it. I have much respect for him and philosophically agree but I can't drop the idea that it seems schools must be trying to find some type of middle ground. Please fill out the survey below so we can see what the general trends are.

I can see the wisdom of both points of view. The oh so sad to bad crowd that just awards zeroes does protect the integrity of the exam and its importance. The half way crowd with fines for early exams seems to avoid the dreaded zero while still allowing for the family who feels the need to act special.

One issue also is who is responsible for the decision. Often times students are at the mercy of decisions made by parents who may or may not care as much about exams as their children. I am sure we all practice mercy in terms of extreme circumstances.

Click below to take the survey. Results will be shared in next week's post.


Sunday, May 4, 2008

Grades, grades, and more grades!

Have you ever wondered where the concept of letter grading came from? Do you ever find yourself asking why you do it? Do grades kill creativity? Do grades stifle learning? I've started to ponder these questions as we enter into the annual rush to graduation. Our awards ceremony is looming close at hand. Don't get me wrong, these students are deserving of all the ribbons and accolades we can heap upon them, but in the end does the struggle for the 4.67876 over the 4.67776 really matter? Does the competition for grades get in the way of learning? Are students better off and the cause of learning best served by blowing up the current grading system?

The Beginning: Have you ever heard of William Farish? Grades first entered the educational system with the industrial revolution. Prior to this time, education consisted mostly of students in small groups working with mentor teachers. The quality of the education was tied largely to a teacher's ability to pass on skill and knowledge to this small group of students.

The industrial revolution and the shift from rural to urban life brought large changes to society. One such change was the transformation of the traditional pedagogical approaches of education to one that could serve mass numbers of students in an efficient manner. Enter William Farish. A tutor at Cambridge, Farish came to realize that the more students the school could enroll with fewer instructors, the more revenue each instructor could potentially receive. Farish's adoption of "grading" from factories where products were "graded" into the classroom made it possible for teachers to see greater and greater numbers of students each day. For most schools this process of grading remains.

A better way: Is there a better way? How would Catholic high schools and schools in general operate if grades where not part of the academic day? It is a startling proposal in many ways but one in which education and all its faults might find a new source of creativity. Would it work? Would student learning flourish? Would cheating come to an end? A recent exit survey with our own senior class found that 50% of students see cheating as a major problem. The percentage goes to 75% when we adjust for those tracked in the honors classes.

We all sense the profound shift education would undergo if these practices were changed. The remnants of the industrial revolution keep a strong strangle hold over secondary education. In many places my school included we suffer along with an industrial carnegie model for classes with an agrarian schedule.

Are the Critics right? Critics of abandoning grading argue that grades lead to motivation, colleges demand such grades, and that the whole concept of assessment would need to be rethought. These critics raise valuable points. Alfie Kohn takes a few shots at the critics here. Granted, the work of Mr. Kohn is rather radical but it is certainly thought provoking.

Catholic World-View and Grading: Being schools driven by the Catholic world-view brings forth even more issues regarding these practices. Is grading compatible with our world view? How would Jesus (the great teacher) have graded the Apostles? An interesting question never the less.

To help gather some info on our current grading practices, please take time to fill out the grading survey: Survey Here

History of William Farish